It’s no secret that I love games with a strong theme. Games where the aesthetics, concepts, and mechanics are tied together, are the ones that draw my attention. On the other hand, I do understand that sometimes theme based mechanics can get bogged down in details to make them coalesce, adding too many layers of complexity to truly make it an enjoyable experience (I’m looking at you Dungeon Pets). Finding games that balance the richness of a great theme and flow of mechanics is one of those great joys I have as a board game enthusiast, and when a game like Scythe comes around and falls right in that sweet spot, I know I’ve found an extraordinary gaming experience.
Scythe is a territory and resource control game set in an alternate history version of Eastern Europe following a First World War fought with technologically enhanced troops and giant steam-powered mechs. Following the end of the conflict, the advanced factory that was fueled by the war effort has been forced to shut down leaving the country that supported it un-owned and the technological secrets inside up for grabs. Leaders from nearby nations are sent to gain as much control of the territory as they can, using the resources and people that they find there.
Scythe’s most unique gameplay feature is tying the completion of the game to 10 different achievements that players can shoot for such as deploying all four of their mechs or completing one of their secret objectives indicated by placing a coloured star in the appropriate space.
Once one player has placed all 6 of their stars on the board, the game ends immediately, and scores are calculated using a monetary reward based on your popularity, tracked with a heart on a different scale. You gain money for each star you place, each territory controlled, how many resources you own and if building placement matches specific criteria picked at random at the beginning of the game. Because a player can’t complete all the achievements, it’s best if they focus on a few based on their faction’s strengths.
Each player is assigned a nation which is based on historically plausible nations that could have formed in early Europe had several other prior conflicts turned out differently. Each has different faction abilities as well as powers for their mechs that can acquire by building them. The four actions a player can take each turn are printed on different player boards which they are randomly assigned at the start of the game.
While all the primary, top row actions are the same on every board their order is different based on the faction archetype. These actions allow you to move units, produce resources, pay for resources, or increase your attack power at the cost of money, power, or popularity. Once done with their primary action players can then choose to perform the secondary, bottom row action which is always in the same position but the costs of food, steel, wood or oil and the money rewards acquired for activating it can differ. Here you can upgrade your actions, deploy mechs, build structures, or gain a bonus when your neighbours use the same secondary action.
So depending on the board for one player the move action could be paired with the build action while on another it is paired with deploy. By default, the same action can’t be selected 2 turns in a row, so players will need to carefully weigh their options and overall strategies when making their choices as well as the resources available to them. Costs for the actions and optional selections are clearly indicated with colours and icons so once players are used to the system choices can go by quickly.
Combat also resolves quickly. After two combat units move into the same area, each player involved chooses to spend an amount of power they have accumulated secretly on a dial. They can also decide to use one power card for each of their units participating in the fight. Whoever has the highest power total wins and gains control of the territory and resources located there, potentially losing popularity for forcing workers off their land, while the loser retreats.
Scythe is a triumph of simple mechanics leading to complex gameplay. With limited options to choose from it’s easy to make meaningful decisions and even plan ahead when it isn’t your turn, keeping the game moving along very well. That doesn’t mean that those decisions don’t hold a lot of tactical weight and the overall strategy can get particularly deep. With the different types of achievements, it’s trivial to switch gears when something goes wrong and stay in the game instead of feeling like you’re buried behind your opponents’ successes so strategies can also be very flexible. It is also refreshing that combat is not the primary mechanic of the game. Mech and character placement act more as a deterrent to offensive movement leading players to carefully consider when it’s beneficial to move into to enemy territory.
Although initially, it seems dour and bleak, the theme, based on Jakub Rozalski‘s 1920 series of art pieces, is amazingly fresh and huge in scope. The imaginative use of the setting and the depth of the source material are apparent without being explicitly stated, the story is delivered in just one paragraph in the manual. You can spend a lot of time speculating as to what happened in this land’s history to get them to this point just from the faction boards.
A second glance at the artwork reveals amazing details and subtle uses of colour that contrast with the, at first, seemingly grey aesthetic. All of the artwork in the game is spectacular, in particular on the encounter cards which feature choices for your character to make based on the vignette shown above them. The board is richly detailed without losing any essential information. It’s enjoyable to examine it and find the unique details like the gondolas going up a mountain.
Components are excellent and fun despite the darker setting. Each faction character is well sculpted and distinct with their own animal companions adding a lot of flavours. The mechs are unique for each faction and themed nicely with the Nordic and Saxony faction mechs appearing to be to gunboats and tanks with legs attached to them while the Crimean mechs look like farm equipment modified to accommodate guns. Even the wooden tokens have a great degree of character particularly the worker pieces which are also unique for each player.
There is a solo game option, designed by The Automa Factory, which uses a series of cards to simulate the AI behaviour of an opposing faction with customizable difficulty levels. The movement rules for this style of play are fairly complex and will require multiple checks of the rules to get right. Thankfully a set of reference cards are provided to help smooth the learning curve out and once you do understand the principles behind it, play moves very quickly. There are even some community efforts on Board Game Geek to include the automation as an extra player to the base game if you want to fill out your table.
While Scythe approaches near board game perfection, there are a few things to consider before purchasing. Despite its mechanical simplicity, Scythe’s strategic depth will not lend itself well to an introductory game to novice board gamers. It’s easy to explain the concepts, but sheer depth could quickly overwhelm them. Best to ease in with other, simpler worker placement or territory control games first. The game is also bits heavy so without a storage solution, you may spend a lot of time with setup. Stonemaier Games did have the forethought to officially license some options from companies like The Broken Token to ease this pain, but these solutions can be quite expensive. Some of the great Kickstarter bonus, such as the extended board and combat dials for each faction are going to be highly desirable to fans and luckily are up for reprint soon. Keep this in mind when you purchase that you might be in for a few more expensive upgrades later on down the road.
Scythe has everything you could want from a strategic tabletop game with a strong theme. The simplicity of actions with depth to spare and a setting that not only could you get lost within but also one that fits the mechanics wonderfully. Every aspect of the game is polished to almost perfection. Scythe is a joy to have in my collection and one that I know I’m going to revisit solo and with the right group of players on a frequent basis. Play it, and you’ll see what all the fuss is about!
- Massive amounts of strategic depth from a simple set of choices.
- Fantastic components.
- Theme and artwork by Jakub Rozalski are stunning.
- Excellent solo play mechanics.
- Beginners may be overwhelmed.
- Some solo play rules are complicated at the start.
- You will want the Kickstarter bonuses.